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05 July 2011

If those I loved were lost

If those I loved were lost
The Crier's voice would tell me—
If those I loved were found
The bells of Ghent would ring—

Did those I loved repose
The Daisy would impel me.
Philip—when bewildered
Bore his riddle in! 
                                                       - F 20 (1858)

David Preest in his invaluable commentary on Dickinson poems provides the following explanation of who Philip is and what his riddle was:
Statue of van Artevelde in Ghent
Thomas Johnson, in his 1955 edition of [Dickinson's] poems, explains that Philip is Philip van Artevelde who led the men of Ghent in a successful rebellion against their overlord, the count of Flanders. But in a later battle the rebels were defeated and Philip ingloriously crushed to death in a ditch outside Ghent. In a play on this subject, a copy of which was in the Dickinson household, Philip’s last words, as he is borne towards the town, are, ‘What have I done? Why such a death? Why thus?’
The reference to Philip is set up earlier when the bells of Ghent ring when a lost loved one is found. The famous Ghent bells were rung for important events as well as to warn of war. 
    Dickinson provides three examples of a living person being made aware of the fate of loved ones: the town crier calls out for a missing person; celebratory bells ring for one found; and the daisy draws a mourner to a grave and suggests rebirth. It is difficult to see how this relates to a dying man crying out his confusion and dismay at the manner of his death. The contrast is between knowing and unknowing. The poet knows when someone is lost or found; has evidence of their repose and rebirth. Philip, however, representing those who die in situations not of their choosing, has no certainty. He carries his riddle with him, not only into the city but into death. He feels betrayed by the unfairness of the manner of his death--of the injustice of it. This makes a mockery of the poet's smug certainty that things are being handled well and that death is a 'repose' marked by the daisy.
     The difficulty of the train of thought is mirrored in the difficult 'rhymes'--indeed it is hard to recognize even a slant rhyme with me / ring and me / in. Instead, the poem hangs together by repeated passages: "If those I loved" and "Did those I loved". 


  1. ED struggled with Stanza 2 (Variant F20A, 1858). She wrote and then crossed out these closing lines

    “Philip questioned eager
    I, my riddle bring!”

    and inserted

    “Philip —when bewildered
    Bore his riddle in!”

    Personally, I prefer her first version over her second, which is the one she included in her fascicle (F20B).

    An interpretation:

    The poet, painfully bewildered by a beloved’s distant behavior, begs an explanation. Does the beloved no longer care for the poet but doesn’t want to say it? If the beloved still cares, the poet would sense that feeling like the ringing bells of Ghent. If the lover is simply unaware of the poet’s pain, the poet would intuitively comprehend, but as things are, the poet can only ask, “What have I done? Why such coldness? Why, Why, Why?

    Philip’s last words in Taylor’s play, which ED owned:

    “What have I done?—why such a death?—why thus?—
    Oh! for a wound as wide as famine's mouth,
    To make a soldier's passage for my soul."

    Taylor, Henry. 1844. Philip Van Artevelde, ‘A Dramatic Romance in Two Parts’

  2. The One sees infinity in everything, sees God. ( William Blake) there are probably infinity interpretations here, but very good ones are shared here.